1st and 3rd Governor of Massachusetts
1780 – 1785
May 30, 1787 – October 8, 1793
|Thomas Gage (as Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay)
James Bowdoin (1787)
|Thomas Cushing (1785), Samuel Adams (1787)
|January 12, 1737
|October 8, 1793
John Hancock (January 12, 1737 (O.S.) – October 8, 1793 (N.S.)) was President of the Second Continental Congress and of the Congress of the Confederation; first Governor of Massachusetts; and the first person to sign the United States Declaration of Independence.
John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in a part of town which eventually became the separate city of Quincy, Massachusetts. His father died when he was young, and he was adopted by his paternal uncle—Thomas Hancock, a highly successful merchant in New England. After graduating from Boston Latin School, he attended Harvard University and received a business degree in 1754, when he was 17. Upon graduation, he worked for his uncle. From 1760–1764, Hancock lived in England while building relationships with customers and suppliers of his uncle's shipbuilding business. Shortly after his return from England, his uncle died and he inherited the fortune and business, making him the wealthiest man in New England at the time.
Hancock married Dorothy Quincy. (Dorothy Quincy's aunt, who had the same name as her niece, was the great-grandmother of Oliver Wendell Holmes.)
John and Dorothy had two children, neither of whom survived to adulthood.
A Boston selectman and representative to the Massachusetts General Court, his colonial trade business naturally disposed him to resist the Stamp Act, which attempted to restrict colonial trading.
The Stamp Act was repealed, but later acts (such as the Townshend Acts) led to further taxation on common goods. Eventually, Hancock's shipping practices became more evasive, and he began to smuggle glass, lead, paper and tea. In 1768, upon arriving from England, his sloop Liberty was impounded by British customs officials for violation of revenue laws. This caused a riot among some infuriated Bostonians expecting the supplies on board.
His regular merchant trade as well as his smuggling practices financed much of his region's resistance to British authority and his financial contributions led the people of Boston to joke that "Sam Adams writes the letters [to newspapers] and John Hancock pays the postage" (Fradin & McCurdy, 2002).
At first only a financier of the growing rebellion, he later became a public critic of British rule. On March 5, 1774, the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, he gave a speech strongly condemning the British. In the same year, he was unanimously elected president of the Provisional Congress of Massachusetts, and presided over its Committee of Safety. Under Hancock, Massachusetts was able to raise bands of "minutemen"—soldiers who pledged to be ready for battle in a minute's notice—and his boycott of tea imported by the British East India Company eventually led to the Boston Tea Party.
In April 1775 as the British intent became apparent, Hancock and Samuel Adams slipped away from Boston to elude capture, staying in the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, Massachusetts (which can still be seen to this day). There Paul Revere roused them about midnight before the British troops arrived at dawn for the Battle of Lexington and Concord. At this time, General Thomas Gage ordered Hancock and Adams arrested for treason. Following the battle a proclamation was issued granting a general pardon to all who would demonstrate loyalty to the crown—with the exceptions of Hancock and Adams. On May 24, 1775, he was elected the third President of the Second Continental Congress, succeeding Peyton Randolph. He would serve until October 30, 1777, when he was himself succeeded by Henry Laurens.
In the first month of his presidency, on June 19, 1775, Hancock commissioned George Washington commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. A year later, Hancock sent Washington a copy of the July 4, 1776 congressional resolution calling for independence as well as a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Hancock was the only one to sign the Declaration of Independence on the fourth; the other 55 delegates signed on August 2nd (see also "Lee Resolution" that declared independence on July 2nd). He also requested Washington have the Declaration read to the Continental Army. According to popular legend, he signed his name largely and clearly to be sure King George III could read it without his spectacles, causing his name to become, in the United States, an eponym for "signature". However, other examples suggest that Hancock always wrote his signature this way.
From 1780–1785, he was governor of Massachusetts. Hancock's skills as orator and moderator were much admired, but during the American Revolution he was most often sought out for his ability to raise funds and supplies for American troops. Despite his skill in the merchant trade, even Hancock had trouble meeting the Continental Congress's demand for beef cattle to feed the hungry army. On January 19, 1781, General Washington warned Hancock:
"I should not trouble your Excellency, with such reiterated applications on the score of supplies, if any objects less than the safety of these Posts on this River, and indeed the existence of the Army, were at stake. By the enclosed Extracts of a Letter, of Yesterday, from Major Genl. Heath, you will see our present situation, and future prospects. If therefore the supply of Beef Cattle demanded by the requisitions of Congress from Your State, is not regularly forwarded to the Army, I cannot consider myself as responsible for the maintenance of the Garrisons below West Point, New York, or the continuance of a single Regiment in the Field." (United States Library of Congress, 1781.)
|In circumstances as dark as these, it becomes us, as Men and Christians, to reflect that whilst every prudent measure should be taken to ward off the impending judgments, …at the same time all confidence must be withheld from the means we use; and reposed only on that God rules in the armies of Heaven, and without His whole blessing, the best human counsels are but foolishness… Resolved; …Thursday the 11th of May…to humble themselves before God under the heavy judgments felt and feared, to confess the sins that have deserved them, to implore the Forgiveness of all our transgressions, and a spirit of repentance and reformation …and a Blessing on the … Union of the American Colonies in Defense of their Rights [for which hitherto we desire to thank Almighty God]…That the people of Great Britain and their rulers may have their eyes opened to discern the things that shall make for the peace of the nation…for the redress of America’s many grievances, the restoration of all her invaded liberties, and their security to the latest generations.
In 1772, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published. John Hancock was among those who signed the attestation that Phillis Wheatley, an African American, was its author, refuting the popular assertion that a black woman could not have the intellect to produce the work. When, in 1773, the book was put on display in Aldgate, London (having been refused by Boston publishers) it thus became the first book by an African American to be officially published.
He was also a Freemason. As Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he presented a flag to the Bucks of America black military unit of Boston.
A number of things have been named after John Hancock: